The sun was just sinking over the horizon when Amber got off work, but it had long ago disappeared behind the university and it looked darker than it really was, making her question what time it was. She glanced at her watch although she knew her eyes were deceiving her about the time and found it to be only a little after six.
"It's going to be dark soon," she told herself. "Time to go home."
She had a fear of the dark – of the creatures that came out then. She pushed her hair back and started down the sidewalk towards home.
The university was only a mile from the apartment where Amber stayed, so she didn't mind the walk. She just didn't like the walk after dark. She hadn't since her family was killed.
The university doors opened once more to release her coworker and partner, Troy. He paused and pulled a cigarette from the pack in his pocket. "Heading home, Amber?" he asked. She nodded. "Need a lift?"
Normally, Amber would decline the offer. Although she didn't have a car, she enjoyed the walk between her apartment and the university. Tonight, however, it was near dark as she headed towards home, and that thought was enough to scare her.
"Sure," she said.
A few minutes later, he had dropped her off in front of her apartment on the corner of First and Main Street.
"See you Monday," she said to him as he drove off. He waved at her in response. With an inward sigh, Amber climbed the stairs to the building, trading small pleasantries with her neighbor Mrs. Watson as she unlocked her door.
Mrs. Watson had lived in the building for as long as Amber could remember. A widow of many years, she was a well-bred woman with several cats she looked after. Still, Amber found her company pleasant most of the time and would take a few minutes to speak with her. Although Mrs. Watson often spoke of family, Amber had yet to see either son she boasted of so highly or any other family for that matter within fifty feet of their shared building.
"Doing well today Mrs. Watson?" she asked.
"Yes dearie, I'm doing fine. It was a lovely day today, was it not?" Mrs. Watson finished watering the rose bush and reached over to the spigot to turn it off, smiling at Amber as she did so.
"Yes it was, although I didn't get to see much of it today as I was inside while at work. Have a good evening Mrs. Watson."
She went inside, picked the mail off the floor from where it had landed through the mail slot, locked the door, took off her coat and shoes, hung her coat and purse on the wall by the door and walked to the kitchen where she poured herself a glass of wine. She looked through the mail as she stood in front of her kitchen sink, trying to figure out what she was going to make for dinner.
All she had was bills though, which could wait until after she'd relaxed some, so she set down the mail and her glass of wine and moved toward her fridge.
She reached inside and pulled out the small, personalized cake she'd gotten for herself. It was just large enough to house the two candles she'd bought to put on top.
"Happy thirtieth birthday to me," she said as she blew out the candles.
She'd lived alone ever since she moved to this apartment. She'd dated a couple guys over the years, but nothing long-term. The longest relationship she'd ever had was with her therapist, whom she had continued to visit once a month since she moved although Jeffery insisted she didn't need him anymore. If she was honest with herself, she only continued to see him because she got lonely, and he knew it although he'd never forced her to say it out loud.
Amber grabbed a fork from the drawer and started eating the cake. Red velvet with cream cheese frosting and a glass of white wine seemed like a good enough dinner tonight.
"Man, I need a date," she said to herself with a small laugh. "I need a life period."
The truth was that Amber didn't do anything outside of work. She didn't go out to bars or clubs. She didn't go dancing. She didn't hang out with friends. She hadn't been on a real date in God knows how long. She had nothing. It was work and home, work and home, as it had been every day for so long, Amber couldn't remember when it had started.
She sighed as she took another bite of cake and drank a sip of wine. How long had it been since she had been out of the house for anything besides work and groceries? Her bills were all set up online to be paid automatically. She hardly ever saw the inside of the water company or power company. She probably wouldn't be able to remember how to get there if she had to go.
The last time she'd really gotten out was when she had gone to the university's Christmas party last year. She didn't remember much about it truthfully. She remembered taking some prescriptions to calm her nerves so she could even attend the stupid party since it was after dark had fallen, and she now believed she had taken too many because she didn't remember anything from the party – just that she'd gotten there safely and she'd made it home safely – and without finding someone in her bed. That was all that mattered to her.
"When was the last time I had someone in my bed?" she asked herself aloud as she took another bite of cake.
That was an even tougher question to answer. She didn't sleep with men that often. She wasn't attracted to women in a romantic way. There just hadn't been anyone to hold her interest in that way in a while.
"Tom was kind of cute," she told herself.
Yes, Tom had been cute. A bartender at a bar she'd gone to one day after work – one of those days she'd gotten off early for once. Tom had had brown hair and eyes, a nice body and a fun attitude, but even though they had clicked while talking, they hadn't clicked in the bedroom. Sex with Tom was like sex with every other guy she'd dated since college. There was no fire. There was no desire.
At least she didn't pull away screaming though as she had when she'd first started having sex. That had taken a long time to work out.
Jeffery had surprised her with that one. Randomly during a session with him while she was still in college, he'd asked her how her sex life was.
At that point, it had been none-existent.
"Maybe you should try having sex. It does relieve stress," Jeffrey suggested.
Amber had been too shocked to reply to that one, and even after the session, it took a long time for her to work up the courage to have sex with anyone. By the time she did, she was finished with college and working an internship at the university.
She shook her head. She didn't want to think about sex and men anymore. All she wanted to do was get through this birthday alone, as she always had and continue her life.
After she'd finished her wine and her cake, she poured herself another glass before moving to the living room to watch a little TV before crawling into bed, her second glass of wine only half finished on the bedside table.
"Happy birthday to me," she whispered with a sigh as she turned off the lamp.
The station was quieter than usual, Natasha decided. He sat back at his desk, staring at his desktop and wondering when he was going to get something beyond the usual. Anything had to be better than the usual cases like those of blood abuse.
He really didn't understand why there were so many blood abuse cases truthfully. It wasn't like there was a blood shortage, and it was authentic blood taken during blood drives and kept frozen.
He drank from his cup of warmed blood and wrinkled his nose at it in disgust. It had gotten cold.
"Maybe that's why," he told himself.
His partner looked up from the paperwork he was filling out and gave Natasha a quizzical look. "What are you talking about?" he asked.
"Nothing," Natasha replied. "Just talking to myself."
His partner returned to his paperwork. Stefan Shift was a straight and narrow cop, and Natasha didn't mind having him as a partner, but he missed Norman. Norman would have known what Natasha was talking about as soon as he saw the wrinkled expression and the cup of blood.
He pulled his thoughts back to the cup of blood in his hand. Blood straight from the vein was warm, and the sensations that ran through the body were similar to those of a street drug. In fact, Norman had been certain there was a black market for fresh vein blood; vampires who really wanted the fresh stuff would hire someone to go to overpopulated clubs and slash some veins. There was no proof to back up his theories, but that didn't change Norman's opinion of it.
Fresh blood was warm, and it tasted like a fine wine. The sensations that ran through one's body after just a sip left that vampire feeling on top of the world and as powerful as Superman.
Natasha didn't know this for a fact. He'd been raised on donor blood. It was fine to him, but he hadn't ever had fresh, didn't have to make the transition and didn't know the difference. Those who had, such as Norman, told him there was no compare to the "real deal."
Maybe that was why so many of the Pures found him disgusting. To them, he was only a half-breed, a mongrel, and he would never be one of them. Even Stefan from time to time seemed to sneer at him. Norman hadn't done it, but that was probably because they were related.
"Yeeran! Shift! Get in here!"
Natasha's boss, Captain Soren Pierce, liked to yell. Any time he needed anyone in his office – whether good or bad news – he yelled. It was unnerving for the rookies, but Yeeran and Shift weren't rookies and they were both used to Pierce's ways.
Natasha sighed and downed the last of his drink, sneering at the contents of the cup even as he found his feet. He followed Stefan to Pierce's office and shut the door behind them, sitting in the chair before Pierce's desk his partner didn't occupy.
"Got something for us boss?" Stefan asked.
"Yeah," Pierce replied from behind an open folder. Natasha thought there was something oddly familiar about that folder. "Guard duty."
"Guard duty?" Stefan sounded appalled.
Natasha, on the other hand, leaned forward. This was not the best thing in the world, but it was better than another blood abuse case.
"Guard duty," Pierce repeated. He put the folder down and looked at the two sitting across from him. "It's the best I've got at the moment boys. I can't give you the other case. There are too many conflictions."
"Conflictions?" Natasha asked.
"You two are the best this force has with Folsom and Williams coming in a close second. Usually, I would give them the guard duty, but I can't. Folsom and Williams would blow it – and quickly. So I have to give them the case I'd rather give you two and give you two this one."
"Why is that, sir?" Stefan asked.
Pierce looked him in the eyes. "Because neither of you two will attack a human."
"A human!" they both cried in surprise.
"We're guarding a human?" Natasha asked.
"Yes, you are, and you boys better not blow it. This is a particular case – one that had been thought closed." He looked at Natasha. "You should feel more privy to it then you think. It was once Norman's."
"Norman guarded a human?" Natasha asked. He didn't sound too sure of that.
Pierce nodded and passed the file to Stefan. "Amber Shinell is the only person to survive a vampire attack and remember exactly what happened."
"Her memory wasn't erased?" Stefan asked.
Their captain shook his head. "It couldn't. Her blood's too strong. Her blood is the reason she was attacked. She's a Mage."
"We're protecting a Mage."
Pierce nodded again. "Still, she's human, and she would be vampire chow under Folsom and Williams' watch. I'm trusting that you two won't have the same problem. Bloodlust doesn't call to you as it does to most."
"It doesn't call to Natasha, sir, but are you sure you want me on the case. A human? Even if she is a Mage, that's asking a lot of me," Stefan said.
"Would you rather not be on the case?"
"I'd rather not be in the forefront. I'll do the paperwork, but if I come face to face with someone like a Mage twenty-four-seven, even I can't predict what might happen. I'll read the file and update Natasha, but I think he should be the forerunner of this case."
Pierce nodded. "Very well." He passed the file. "There's only one other thing you should know about her, boys."
"And that is?" Natasha asked after a few minutes of silence in which it didn't look like Pierce was going to speak again.
"She does have contact with vampires still – despite her lack of knowledge of it."
"How can she have contact with a vampire and not know she does?" Natasha asked.
"Once a week, she goes to see Thomas."
Natasha knew Thomas. Thomas was the only vampire to have been a Mage. Usually, only humans were Mages, but Thomas was the exception. If Thomas was teaching Amber, she had to be something.
"She doesn't realize what Thomas is?"
"No, she doesn't. Norman introduced her to him a long time ago."
"Norman? What does Norman have to do with this?"
"Read her file. Figure it out. Or, do it the lazy way and talk to Norman." Pierce shrugged. "Norman's retired – not dead. He'll probably be able to fill you in on this one."
The two nodded and stood, taking that as a dismissal.
"Send Folsom and Williams in here on your way out," Pierce told them as they walked out.
Natasha let Stefan go tell Folsom and Williams the captain wanted to see them. On the best of days, they didn't like Natasha, and they weren't afraid to show it when the captain wasn't paying attention. Natasha was used to the treatment, but that didn't mean he didn't avoid it if he could.
In the meantime, Natasha filled his cup and warmed it up in the microwave. He returned to his desk about the same time Stefan did.
"What do you think?" he asked.
Stefan shrugged. "It's a case."
"Beats the blood abuse cases we've been getting lately."
Again, Stefan shrugged. "I still don't understand why we have to guard a human – Mage or no."
It was Natasha's turn to shrug. "What does the file say?"
"Nothing really. Amber Shinell works for the local university as a project researcher. She's unmarried and has no living family. No record. She's clean."
"Sounds boring. Why are we protecting her?"
"That's where it gets interesting. It says here she and her family were attacked fifteen years ago, and she's the only surviving relative." Stefan flipped a couple of pages in the file. "The vampire who attacked her was Kyle Wayard. He was caught – Norman was the lead officer on the case. This doesn't make any sense." He shook his head. "Wayard got the life sentence. Why are we protecting this human?"
"Because Kyle Wayard escaped this morning," someone said behind them.
They both turned and looked at Folsom and Williams.
Jack Folsom wasn't much to look at for a vampire truthfully. All the stories portrayed them as beautiful creatures with pale skin and elongated fangs. The truth was that vampires' fangs only appeared in times of extreme stress or when they were feeding. Folsom looked like an average Joe on the street. He was on the heavier side, having gorged on blood too many times, and had a stick-up-his-ass attitude when it came to work. He was a straight cop for rules while wearing his uniform, despite his racism towards half-vampires. If his blond hadn't been balding, he might have been a looker in spite of his larger size. Even so, his blue eyes, which were like ocean water on a sunny day, were his main attraction and he still got plenty of dates because of his eyes.
On the other hand, Patrick Williams could have been Folsom's twin in his attitude towards Natasha, but he was almost the complete opposite in looks. He had a full, dark streak of hair that was graying along the sides. He was thinner than a fishing rod with dark shadows surrounding his brilliantly violet eyes – as if he never slept. He tended to take Folsom's lead and follow like an obedient dog.
Neither one looked happy at this moment. "He killed the security guards and half the prison staff on his way out. They are keeping it hush, hush for now. They don't want anyone to know."
"That still doesn't explain anything."
Folsom shrugged. "I can only tell you what I know half-breed, and what I know is that we're to go after Kyle Wayard and you're to keep her safe."
Natasha hated when they called him a half-breed, even if it was true. It was derogatory and degrading. Still, he clenched his jaw and remained quiet, choosing to ignore the insult. They were just trying to rile him up anyway and start a fight.
"You have to admit Jack. This is where Natasha one-ups you. The only reason you got your case is because you'd be too tempted to eat the woman you're trying to protect."
Folsom narrowed his eyes at the two. "No," he snarled. "I wouldn't dare touch her slimy neck. She's a human, and I wouldn't touch her for fear that you would be bringing me in for it half-breed."
Natasha's own eyes narrowed as he looked Folsom in the eyes. "One of these days you'll regret all the insults you throw at me, Folsom."
"Yeah?" Folsom snarled.
"Hey, Natasha, you might want to go talk to Norman. He might have some clues as to why Wayard might go after this girl." Stefan's voice broke the tension that had started building in the air.
"Norman?" Williams asked.
Natasha nodded. "He was the officer who originally brought Wayard in."
"You still have contact with Norman?" Williams sounded surprised.
"Of course he does," Stefan said, and he actually sounded surprised that Williams didn't understand. "He's Norman's grandson."
Neither Jack Folsom nor Patrick Williams had known this information. Among those in the police force, Norman was a legend. They both stared after Natasha as the half-vampire picked up his coat and headed for the door.